The opening scene of ‘Le Samourai’, the stark, minimalist, and ultimate modernist film written and directed by Jean Pierre Melville from 1967, shows a bed in a rather shabby room. It takes quite a few seconds to see the figure reclining on the bed. Smoke rising from a succession of bulk bought Gitanes, which can be seen stacked on top of a wardrobe, alongside bottles and bottles of mineral water, finally give the game away.
The person in your view is one Jef Costello, a professional hitman played by Alain Delon. In this one-room apartment, his only companion is a small caged bird who will act as a guard dog later, warning Jef that he has had intruders in his apartment whilst he has been out.
But hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself.
In this film, minutes go by without any dialogue, and in that time, you the viewer slowly become aware that Costello is a lone wolf, cool and detached who operates outside the norms of society, keeping those who know of any of his activities to a bare minimum. Close up shots of Jef; reveal him to have dead eyes. Emotion is kept in severe check here.
We see him leaving the flat, and stealing a car, which he then drives to a garage where a number plate change and gun pick up, occur in total silence. Jef then sets about getting his alibi in order, before making his hit on ‘Martey’ the owner of a jazz club, operating under the same name.
The police quickly round up the usual lowlife suspects in the area and Jef is caught up among that trap. We learn that he has no previous convictions, so our boy is good, very good at leaving no tracks. Or has been up until now. There is confusion between those who witnessed the killing in the club, including pianist ‘Valerie’ played by Caty Rosier, who we know clearly saw Jef as he emerged from the room where the killing took place. When pressed by the police, she declines to identify him, meaning that there is no consistent positive ID for the police to work from.
Inside the police station, scene after scene is full of understated, muted colours of blue, grey and black, all of which permeate the film. Everything is stripped back, matter of fact and never showy.
Jef’s carefully selected alibis provided by a girlfriend Jane (played by Mrs Delon in real life) and a card school of reprobates of the highest Parisian order, also hold up and he is let go by the police superintendent played by Francois Perier, who none the less, instinctively knows Jef is his man.
We then have a succession of cat and mouse adventures on the Paris metro, as undercover police, try to get info on their man, as they follow Jef all over Paris. It is quickly evident that he knows his way round the underground expertly. The scenes of the Paris metro in the late 60s, featuring the advertising of the day are a joy.
Our man finally shakes off the police and then tries to pick up his wages for the killing of Martey, only to then be shot and wounded by those who ordered the hit. They are all too aware that the police have Jef as suspect number one, so try to end the trail there and then before it leads back to them. However, Jef now wounded, manages to escape.
He returns to his one room, to find his caged bird has shed feathers all over his cage, having clearly become upset. Jef realises something is amiss and immediately searches his
room, discovering a listening device, placed there earlier by a police surveillance team.
Jef is then approached by the same people who ordered the original hit, and who tried to kill him, to then take out another contract. We don’t discover the identity of the next victim, but he takes the money and he accepts the job.
We see him return to the jazz club, this time making no attempt to hide his identity. He approaches the pianist Valerie and raises his gun.
She asks ‘Why Jef?’ and he replies ‘I was paid to.’
Shots then ring out, but it is Jef who is gunned down by police who have laid in wait for him. When checking on his gun, the police reveal it is empty of bullets. I surmised that knowing his own death was inevitable if he carried out the second killing, he chose instead to die on his sword as it were, like all good Samurai.
Their code from the 16th century stated that ‘one who is a Samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind, by day and by night, the fact that he has to die. That is his chief business.’ Deep brother, deep.
For me, this is the ultimate Mod film. The dialogue is lean, sparse, indeed pared down to as much silence as possible within a film. The clothing of all concerned is also minimal and muted as to be almost boring but which on closer inspection and seen with an informed eye, is precise and sharp. Delon himself of course looks fantastic in his Borsalino trilby and belted trench coat.
If, like a few I have mentioned it too, you have not seen this film, I urge you to change that.
Le Mumper of SE5
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